Of the many complexities of female-ness in modern culture, menopause is unique. While it’s a natural process that over half the population experiences, it still retains a sort of medieval silence around it, a kind of cultural conspiracy that it’s not something we talk about as women until we have to face it, and even then only under a very limited set of circumstances (men can’t talk about it, for instance). It’s like admitting a well-kept secret–people around you look sideways, shift a bit, and look uncomfortable. You probably look uncomfortable right now.
When Nancy Gilgoff was asked about it a couple of Confluences ago, she gave a rather dark answer that reinforces that secrecy: Women think about life before menopause, she said. After menopause, “you begin to think about death.” The process of menopause started for me when I was about 43. Theoretically, I could have 40-50 more years of life before I cash it in. I could, if I’m lucky, have a longer post-menopausal life than a pre- one. Thinking about death at that point seems a little premature. I have a short attention span. I’m likely to get pretty bored thinking about death for that long.
It’s not really my purpose here to talk about the physical manifestations (“symptoms” they call them—as if it’s a disease) of menopause, or debate its equivalent for men, sometimes called “andropause” (yeah, that’s a thing), or to ominously warn you younger practitioners what’s coming. Or to provide you with comic tales of my hot flashes or mood swings, which I suppose are designed to take the tension out of the moment, ease the embarrassment we’re supposed to feel for going through some perfectly natural changes. I could go into just the fact that using the phrase “perfectly natural changes” should be unnecessary, but I’m not going to do that, either (see what I did there?). No, I’m really here to just use the word “menopause” a lot, without whispering it, and to talk about Ashtanga at the same time. Here we go:
There’s no doubt in my mind that Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is helping me transition through menopause in an open and fearless way. After all, I transition about a hundred times a day. So I don’t see menopause as an approaching doom, a line that I’m crossing into “aging” (and by extension, death) and that’s all because of Ashtanga.
In part, it’s the big-picture perspective we get from rolling out the mat and taking on the intensity of Ashtanga every day. You get that even-keel tenacity so that when something big and difficult comes along, you just deal with it. I could collapse into self-pity about menopause, but I don’t do that after kapotasana, so why start now? (Well, sometimes I collapse into self-pity after kapotasana, but this never serves to improve my kapotasana, so these kapotasana pity parties are growing increasingly more rare due to their futility.)
The related benefit, I think, comes from the limitless quality to Ashtanga that has been such a blessing to me over the years of my practice. Things that I thought would never happen have happened. And I’m not talking about things like putting my feet behind my head (although I certainly never thought I’d be doing that back when I was 30). I’m talking about walking without pain, strength to live my daily life. Those things keep getting better because Ashtanga is never finished. There is always more to learn, new places to take it. I am stronger now than I was when I was 20, 30, and even than when I was 40. And I can use what I know now to take myself to places I couldn’t go when I was younger.
At the same time, that limitless quality has limits–for me. I’m not under any illusions that I’m not aging. But I don’t see age as a ramping-down, because I’ve been aging since the day I was born. I see menopause in the larger range of growth. I know where the limits are and which ones are real, which ones are illusions (or at least, I know enough to test the reality of those limits). To see menopause as a limit is an illusion. I will pass through it, and that’s that. Some things I can’t do. Some things I can. Some things I don’t yet know if I can do, but that won’t stop me from trying them, to find new possibility as well as new limits, like a river simultaneously creating and finding its own banks by flowing.
That means change. The physical nature of the changes of menopause have also been made easier because of Ashtanga. It’s funny; when you spend an hour and a half every day sweating like a welder in August, hot flashes don’t seem like that big a deal.
Maybe I can also say that I haven’t experienced any of the big emotional changes of menopause because of Ashtanga—I don’t know. Before I got to menopause, I’d already experienced big emotional changes in the practice. I’d had moments of manic happiness and weepy, unexplained openness. I’d been angry. I’d been frustrated for really stupid reasons. And that was just in the first year—heck, maybe even in the first month. So when it comes to the emotional effects of menopause, I just haven’t had the people-you-love-won’t-know-you experience that a lot of women seem to have. But maybe I have, and I haven’t noticed. Hm. I’ll ask people I know if they know me.
That mind/body relationship is a full-time job for an Ashtanga practitioner, in part because of the dietary changes brought on by practicing. It’s not very long after you start doing Ashtanga that you start to alter what you eat to try to improve the quality of your practice. So that was something that was well-established long before I entered the even early stages of menopause. Because we are so annoyingly particular about what we eat as Ashtangis (I’m sorry to be the one to break this to you, but you are annoyingly particular), there are all kinds of physiological changes that are often ushered in by our new diet. In my case–and probably in yours, too–the physiological changes were pretty extreme, and continue to this day. Major changes are not so shocking, and are in the context of a lot of other changes.
This is just the way of things, part of the practice: Learning what to eat with a keen inner ear aimed toward the physical body, we also develop a sharp awareness of the emotional effects diet can have. We are, in short, what we eat; and because we know what we eat well, we know who we are. This inner ear also extends to the practice itself, and then to other things. You become a good self-listener. Because the process of menopause was so gradual, so subtle for me physically, my doctor made me get a blood test to confirm it was happening. “I think I’ve started menopause,” I told my doctor. “No way,” she said, “too early.” “No, really, I think I have,” I said. “Alright, let’s test it.”
To her credit, she didn’t freak out, or freak me out, when it was confirmed. Our culture will give us a big list of horrible things that are going to come crashing down on you because of menopause, but I’m here to tell you that hasn’t happened to me. My doctor seems a little bored with me, actually. I guess you could say that it’s the same sort of attitude I have toward a new asana: It is what it is, and I’m working on it, and it’s just a pose.
“Do the asana,” Tim Miller teaches, “Don’t let the asana do you.” That advice is so true of so many things, menopause included. Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from Ashtanga is not to let it define me, but to use it as a tool. Why should menopause be any different? It’s a tool to create change, and as long as I see it that way, it’s my tool to use.
Posted by Bobbie